How I write

My writing process by Claire McGowan


There are a couple of questions that always come up when I’m being interviewed, and which I really should have worked out better answers to. One is: are you disciplined with your writing? And the other is: how much research do you do?

At the moment I write at least one book a year, and I always have other work to do as well, like most writers nowadays. So I don’t sit down at my desk all day every day and write – for one thing, it’s hard to crank out words eight hours a day. For another, life’s little jobs always get in the way, whether it’s proof-reading a different book, or promoting the one you have out, or going to the dentist or dry-cleaners. Part of this is procrastination, of course. When you don’t want to write a particular scene or you don’t know what happens next in your book, it’s amazing how much time you can fill up cleaning the taps, emailing, and watching YouTube videos of cats running into walls.

My process of writing a book spans around a year. This is probably because I have a year. If I had more or less time, I’m sure the work would expand or contract. First I’ll get the idea. I get ideas all the time, but not all of these will be workable as novels. It helps that I’m writing a series, so I know roughly what has to happen to the cast of characters in that one. Then I start scribbling down bits of the book, gathering ideas as I go. At this stage I don’t know much about the plot but rather than panic I just try to enjoy the adventure of finding out what’s going on. I use a notebook for this part, which is a sort of fetish – I can kid myself it’s like sketching, just playing about, and it also stops me being distracted by the aforementioned cat videos. Then, I will usually get to thirty thousand words and stop, stumped as to what happens next. I might stop for quite a while, procrastinating and telling myself I’m thinking it over. At some point I drag myself between thirty and sixty thousand words – the hardest part. Then I will stop again to think about what is really going on? What’s the book about? You might think I would know at this point, but….

Then, the research question. I wish I had a good answer for this, like ‘I embedded myself with the police for a year’ or ‘I got myself arrested so I could experience prison’, but it’s nowhere near as exciting as that. I will usually read around the subject I want to write on when I’m in the early musing stages, then try to get the story down, and then check the facts after. I’ll do this either by reading, going online, or talking to people about specific questions. Again, I’m a firm believer that too much research can weigh a book down, and that story is much more important than being totally accurate at all times. I want to write stories, not be an expert in the police force or forensic pathology or something. It’s surprising how often you get things right anyway. The mind is very powerful.

Hopefully this rather haphazard approach will show any aspiring writers that you don’t have to have all the answers when you start a book. However, you absolutely do have to keep going. I’m a big believer in doing 1,000 words a day in the writing stage– this very quickly adds up to a book and is why I wrote my first in three months. If you do this, and keep going without reading back over it, even when you’re convinced it’s no good, at least you have something to work with and fix. The only perfect books are the ones that stay in your head, unwritten. Give it a try!


One Comment Add yours

  1. Sharon says:

    Great advice – basically stop watching cat videos and write. Must try that! Why are the first ten thousand words the easiest???

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